‘Rabbitette,’ new chamber musical, looks at mysterious pregnancies

Itai Yasur said the women in his chamber musical used their lives as “performance art or storytelling to differentiate themselves.”
Photo courtesy of Itai Yasur

One day in 1728, Mary Toft of Surrey, England, made the most unusual claim: She gave birth to a rabbit. The housewife apparently convinced — or fooled — many top doctors about this mysterious feat.

In 1882, Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jew, claimed she became pregnant by her therapist, Josef Breuer, an associate of Sigmund Freud. Her pregnancy appears to have been false, and Pappenheim became far better known as Anna O., the first and most influential patient in the development of psychoanalysis.

What do these two women — separated by more than a century — have in common? Bethesda composer Itai Yasur saw common ground in these disparate tales: “They’re both stories about something that didn’t happen.” Pregnancy, that is.

When a colleague from CINE, the District-based documentary film nonprofit, suggested to Yasur that Mary Toft’s story would make a great premise for a musical, Yasur disagreed. But he did write two songs, an opening and a closing number for last year’s Capital Fringe Festival.

Then he couldn’t quite put the story and music aside. After discovering the parallel yet different story of Pappenheim, he set to work on “Rabbitette,” a chamber musical of four characters and, ultimately, a quartet of musicians on piano, guitar, violin and cello.

“Rabbitette,” will have its first performance March 3 and 4 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast Washington as part of the Intersections Festival.

“Because Freud was considered unreliable on the matter, it is unclear on whether it was a story or it actually happened,” Yasur explained about Pappenheim, “but she accused Joseph Breuer with a [pregnancy]  that, as far as we know, never existed.”

The similarities intrigued the young composer, who is 22 and is a graduate of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, where he premiered his first symphony on the student orchestra.

“These two stories struck me as very similar structurally,” he continued. “They’re both about, on the surface, fictitious pregnancies, but more than that they’re about women who are stuck in a social situation who couldn’t work their way out of it by any straightforward means.”

He added that they used their own lives as “performance art or storytelling to differentiate themselves.”

In both cases, he believes pregnancy became a force for change.”

But not only were the women affected by this. “It’s also about two male doctors who thought they understood a lot more than they actually did and allowed their own hubris to ruin their reputations,” Yasur said. “It’s about how much they got it wrong in both of these cases.”

The music draws inspiration from the classical periods in which both these stories took place, Baroque for Toft’s tale and Romantic for Pappenheim’s. Interestingly, Pappenheim, who grew up in a well-to-do family, was an autodidact, who spoke multiple languages, was well-read and later in life became an important figure as an anti-Zionist just as Zionism was coalescing around the ideas of founder Theodor Herzl.

“What’s so interesting about her is that besides being an intellectual, feminist and great scholar and translator,” said Yasur, who was born in Jerusalem but moved to Maryland at 3 with his kibbutz-raised parents, “she was very aggressive about anti-Zionism. She wrote plays about characters in Palestine who wished they hadn’t moved there. She made many arguments that Palestine wasn’t the ideal solution for Jews.”

Also beyond her contribution to psychotherapy — she was the lead patient in “Studies on Hysteria,” the first text on psychoanalysis — Pappenheim also founded an orphanage for Jewish girls that was intended to teach them to be independent Jewish women. Along those lines, she also translated many Jewish and religious texts so her charges and others could read them in their lingua franca.  It appears that Pappenheim was an early Jewish feminist. Yasur says, “I tried to portray that in the show, her disdain for the misogynistic elements of Orthodox Judaism and the laws regarding women in the Talmud.”

Yasur sees her as a complex and archetypal character: “She had massive education and intellect but at the same time there’s a certain amount of self-hatred in her anti-Zionism. She died in 1936 so she just missed seeing what happened to her orphanage; it was shut down and all the girls were sent to concentration camps.”

These two women’s stories have been mostly lost, but Yasur has brought them back because he believes they continue to resonate with those who encounter them.

“Rabbitette,” March 3 and 4, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theater 2, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Tickets $15. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit atlasarts.org.

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